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Ekstrom Library

Primary Sources: Definitions & Examples

Describes what primary sources are and how they vary by discipline.

Primary Source

A primary source is an original object or document - the raw material or first-hand information, source material  that is closest to what is being studied. 

Primary sources vary by discipline and can include:

  • historical and legal documents,
  • eye witness accounts,
  • results of an experiment*,
  • statistical data,
  • creative writing,
  • art objects.

Secondary Source

A secondary source is something written about a primary source. Secondary sources include:

  • comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material
  • articles in newspapers and magazines*
  • reviews of books and movies
  • articles in scholarly journals that evaluate someone else's original research

Think of secondary sources as second-hand information. If I tell you something, I am the primary source. If you tell someone else what I told you, you are the secondary source. 


Examples of primary and secondary sources by discipline
Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Art Man Ray's photograph of a flat-iron titled "Le Cadeau" An article interpreting the meaning of Man Ray's photograph
History Slave narratives A book analyzing the prominent themes found in slave narratives 
Political Science U. S. census data An article which uses census data to support its argument
Psychology The results of an experiment on reducing the alcohol-associated risks for young adults published in a scholarly journal A review of the literature on college student drinking intervention


Primary or Secondary

You can't always determine if something is primary or secondary just because of the source it is found in.

Articles in newspapers and magazines are usually considered secondary sources. However, if a story in a newspaper about the Iraq war is an eyewitness account, that would be a primary source.  

Scholarly journals include research articles with primary materials, but they also have review articles that are not, or in some disciplines include articles where scholars are looking at primary source materials and coming to new conclusions.

In the natural and social sciences, the results of an experiment or study are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences, so those articles and papers that present the original results are considered primary sources.